Dvořák’s New World Symphony

Gabriela Lena Frank (b.1972): Concertino Cusqueño

Born in Berkeley, California, to a mother of mixed Peruvian/Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian/Jewish descent, Frank attended Rice University in Houston, Texas, where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She received a doctorate in composition from the University of Michigan. There she studied with William Albright, William Bolcom, Leslie Bassett, and Michael Daugherty. She is currently composer-in-residence to both the Houston Symphony and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

Concertino Cusqueño was composed in 2012 for written the Philadelphia Orchestra on the eve of Yannick Nézet-Ségun’s inaugural season as music director. In her program note, Frank says the work “finds inspiration in two unlikely bedfellows: Peruvian culture and British composer Benjamin Britten…. Concertino Cusqueño melds together two brief musical ideas: The first few notes of a religious tune, Ccollanan María, from Cusco (the original capital of the Inca empire Tawantinsuyu, and a major tourist draw today) with the simple timpani motif from the opening bars of the first movement of Britten’s elegant Violin Concerto. I am able to spin an entire one-movement work from these two ideas, designating a prominent role to the four string principal players (with a bow to the piccolo/bass clarinet duo and, yes, the timpanist). In this way, while imagining Britten in Cusco, I can also indulge in my own enjoyment of personalizing the symphonic sound by allowing individuals from the ensemble to shine.”

Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904): Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95 (From the New World)

Accompanied by his wife, six children and a cousin, Dvořák left Prague for the United States in September, 1892. The composer had misgivings about the trip, but the promise of an annual salary of $15,000 convinced him to accept the directorship of New York’s National Conservatory of Music.

During his two-year stay in this country, he taught, fed the pigeons in Central Park, indulged his passion for trains at the New York Central railroad yard, spent his summers at a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa, and composed his last symphony.

“I have just finished a new symphony in E minor,” he wrote in a letter. “It pleases me very much and will differ very substantially from my earlier compositions. Well, the influence of America can be felt by anyone who has a `nose’.”

Dvořák always claimed that the title referred to his “impressions and greetings from the New World,” but critics immediately accused him of wholesale theft of American folk music. While part of the first movement does resemble the spiritual Swing Low Sweet Chariot, the melody of the second movement was later borrowed by William Arms Fischer, one of Dvorák’s pupils, for his pseudo-spiritual Goin’ Home. Certain resemblances in the last movement to Three Blind Mice can also be regarded as allusions to the Czech folk song Weeding Flaxfields Blue.

“Omit that nonsense about my having made use of `Indian’ or `American’ themes–that is a lie,” wrote the composer. “I tried to write only the spirit of national American melodies.”

The Symphony received its first performance in Carnegie Hall in New York on December 15, 1893. According to Dvořák, it “created a furor.” He wrote to his publisher: “The papers say that no composer ever celebrated such a triumph…the audience applauded so that, like visiting royalty, I had to take my bows repeatedly from the box in which I sat.”

H.L. Mencken was then music critic for the Baltimore Evening Sun. His review described the work as “a first rate work of art, honestly constructed and superbly written. It is clear, it is ingenious, it is beautiful. You will search a long while, indeed, among symphonies of these later years before you find better writing and better music.”

Anton Bruckner (1842-1896): Te Deum

Bruckner began his Te Deum in 1881, while finishing his Sixth Symphony. Two years later, having completed his Seventh, he resumed work on the Te Deum, dedicating it “to God in gratitude for having safely brought me through so much anguish in Vienna.” A two-piano version was performed in 1885, then Hans Richter conducted the first performance with full orchestra on January 10, 1886 in Vienna. There were thirty more performances during Bruckner’s lifetime.

On his copy of the score, Gustav Mahler crossed out “for choir, solos and orchestra, organ ad libitum” and wrote “for the tongues of angels, heaven-blest, chastened hearts, and souls purified in the fire!” The composer himself called the work “the pride of my life.” He is supposed to have remarked, “When God finally calls me and asks, ‘What have you done with the talent I gave you, my lad?’ I will present to him the score of my Te Deum. I hope He will judge me mercifully.”

The text of the Te Deum is from an early Christian hymn variously attributed to Saints Ambrose, Augustine, or Hilary, but now accredited to Nicetas, bishop of Remesiana (fourth century). The title comes from the text’s opening words in Latin, “Te Deum laudamus” (“Thee, O God, we praise”). Bruckner’s setting is in five movements, arranged in an “arch” of keys (C major–F minor–D minor–F minor–C major). Like much of his music, the work seems to have been written as if Bruckner were writing a solo organ piece.

~ Program Notes by Charley Samson, copyright 2017